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Ian slowly came into full conscousness, aware first of the pain in his right hip. He opened his eyes and looked up into the face of the surgeon who had been his father's friend for years.
"I hope you're happy now. You've gotten what you wanted." The cold scorn in his voice evident.
"What?" Ian asked groggily.
"The amputation of your leg."
Ian shook his head to clear it. "For real?"
"Yes, damn it. If I had had my way, you would have seen a psychiatrist a long time ago. I simply can't understand a nice looking young man like you wanting to mutilate his body, so don't expect much sympathy from me."
"It was an accident."
"So I'm told. But it seems strange to me that it happened to someone who has been begging me to perform the amputation of a perfectly healthy limb."
"Do I have any stump?"
"No. I saved the entire hip, but there was nothing left but the ball of the femur, so I removed it from the socket. You should be able to sit comfortably in a normal manner when you heal. You can forget a prosthesis. They do make one for people with amputations like yours, but they seldom work well. You may as well resign yourself to spending the rest of your life on crutches."
When the doctor left the room, Ian lifted the sheet and looked at the dressing taped tightly to his right hip, then smiled despite the pain. It was gone! He had hoped for a short stump, but this would be almost as good. He lay back and closed his eyes envisioning himself on crutches. He could hardly wait until he stood on them before a mirror to see how he looked with a leg completely gone.
The anticipation of the most fantastic experience in his twenty years of life all but overwhelmed him. He wished Bill, his roommate at school from the very first, could see him. Bill was straight, but open-minded, and had joked with him good-naturedly when he caught him using crutches in the room one afternoon after classes. He'd even helped him avoid the more aggressive females on campus who used every feminine wile to get a date with him, so far with no success. He grinned the thought. Now he could use pain or being on crutches as excuses.
Oh, hell, he thought, by the time I get back to school Bill will have a new roommate and the semester will over. I'll have to repeat all those classes, too. He lifted the sheet again for another look. This was worth a few weeks of boring classes. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
The orderly woke him as he set the dinner tray on the table and cranked up the bed enough for him to eat, despite his groan of pain as his weight shifted and put pressure on the wound. He moved enough to ease the pain and picked at the meal. It tasted odd.
A nurse came in. "Why aren't you eating? You have to keep up your strength."
"Everything tastes funny."
She smiled. "I hear that a lot from people trying their first meal after surgery. It's from the anesthetic. Everything will taste better tomorrow. Are you in any pain?"
"Just when the orderly cranked up the bed. I moved a bit, so it's not bad now."
"Good. If you need something, ring. Your doctor ordered a sleeping pill for you at bedtime."
"How long will I be here?"
"Three weeks or so. The incision has to heal and you'll need therapy. We want to be sure you're steady on crutches before you leave. Now, eat as much as you can."
His father came in at the beginning of evening visiting hours. "I'm sorry I wasn't with you earlier, son, but I was out of town when the office called me. How do you feel?"
"Pretty good, considering. I guess you know Ron took my leg."
His father's face grew grim. "How do you feel about that?"
"Don't worry, I'm not going to get hysterical. I'll make it on one leg."
"Whether you will or not, you have no choice now. I wish I had listened to Ron when he told me you should see a psychiatrist, but I never thought you would go so far with this insane desire to be an amputee."
"Of course I did. I've known since you were twelve and tried to sneak that old pair of crutches you found somewhere in the house. I saw you with your leg doubled up in your jeans and using crutches several times when I came home early and you didn't know it. I dismissed it as a fantasy, because I saw the way you stared at every amputee you saw when we were out together. What are you going to do about school?"
"I'll have to repeat the classes I missed this semester, but I'm going to finish my degree. I may decide to go for a Masters if all goes well."
"I hope you will and then join me at the company. At the rate we're growing, I can use good men in the office and Bill will retire in about five more years. I want you to have at least a year with him before he retires, then take his place. It's a desk job, as you know, so your leg won't be an inconvenience." He glanced at his watch. "I have a meeting with an architect to go over plans for a new house, so I'll have to go. Is there anything you want?"
"Nothing, thanks. You might call my roommate and let him know I won't be back for a while. The number's the same as mine."
"Very well. I'll have to withdraw you from school for the rest of the semester, also. At least with your grades you should have no trouble being readmitted when you're ready to go back."
When his father left, Ian let out a sigh of relief. He's not happy with me, but at least I didn't get the dressing down I expected. If I'd known he knew all this time, I wouldn't have tried so hard to hide my games from him. It was sure fun though, and now I don't have to pretend any more.
His doctor's examination the next morning was little more than cursory, and that afternoon, the nurse helped him into a wheelchair, his wound cushioned by a soft foam pillow. His muscular arms propelled the chair easily down the hall. When he was sure none of the nurses were looking, he wheeled himself into the elevator and went down to the coffee shop for some magazines.
On his return, he emerged from the elevator to find himself facing the floor nurse, her hands planted on her ample hips, a cross expression on her face. "Where have you been?"
"To get something to read."
"You know you aren't ready to leave the floor, yet. How did you manage to get that far and back?"
"No problem." He held up an arm and flexed the muscles. "Plenty strong enough to push this thing around."
"If you're such a strong man, then there's no reason you can't start learning to use crutches. I'll notify therapy to expect you tomorrow morning."
"Great. I'm ready."
"You won't think so after they get through with you. You're like a lot of others, thinking crutches are easy to use. Well, they're not." She snapped and turned away.
"Wanna bet, you old bat," he mumbled under his breath as he wheeled himself back toward his room.
He paused to wait for the young couple standing at the door of the room next to his to move. The man was holding his wife tightly as she sobbed.
"But it's so unfair, he's only seven." She wailed.
"I know, but it was the only way," he murmured, trying to comfort her. He saw Ian waiting in his chair, then noticed the pajama leg lying flat. "Oh, I'm sorry." They stepped aside for Ian to move.
"Wait a moment, please," his wife said, wiping her tears.
"Yes?" Ian asked softly.
"I know visiting hours are over, but would you be kind enough to let us talk with you tomorrow?"
"About my leg?"
Her tears started again. "Please, if you don't mind taking about it. They took our Tommy's leg this morning. We don't know what to do."
Ian smiled. "My room is next door. I'll be happy to talk with you."
"Oh, thank you. We're the Petersons."
"I'm Ian McGregor. Tomorrow, then."
As they walked away, he looked into the room, seeing the small boy asleep, then wheeled into his own room and started to shift from the chair to the bed, but the flash of intense pain stopped him. He rang for help.
He welcomed the boy's parents at visiting hours the next morning, glad for the diversion of their company. "Ask me anything you want," he told them. "I'm not in the least worried about my leg."
"How brave you are for such a young man," Julie Peterson said quietly.
Ian smiled. "Not at all. It's done, so I'll make the best of it. I just want to get back to school and finish."
"You'll be getting a leg?" Tom asked.
Ian shook his head. "Haven't any stump," he saw the couple wince, "so I can't use one. It'll be crutches from here on out."
"We're so sorry, but we're thankful Tommy still has his knee. The doctor told us that being so young, Tommy won't even miss his leg when he learns to use an artificial one in a few weeks."
"I hope that's so. If it's any consolation, I've read that young children do far better with prosthetic limbs than adults."
"He seems only curious about his leg just now. Would you be kind enough to look in on him if he gets lonely and we're not here?"
"I'll be happy to. I like kids."
They stood to leave. "Thank you so much, Ian. It may not seem like much, but you have helped us more than you know."
Ian's smile spread. "I'm glad. It was nice having someone visit."
The therapist held a pair of wooden crutches out to Ian with a sour look. "I've already heard you're the kind likes to push the limits. Let's see how easy you think walking with these are going to be."
"I'm not taking a damn step with those!" Ian snapped.
"Then you can sit on your ass in that chair. It's your decision."
"Get me a pair of forearm crutches and I'll show you. That's what I'm going to be using."
"Don't have any."
"Then order them. I'll see you when you have them."
"Good. I've plenty to do in between, so I'll see you then. Go help somebody who wants those things."
He stopped outside Tommy's room and looked at the whimpering boy, then wheeled himself in. "Hi, big guy."
The boy pushed the control to raise the head of the bed and looked at Ian. "Who are you?"
"I'm Ian. I have the room next door. What's the matter, buddy?"
"They cut off my leg."
Ian wheeled by the bed and held the boy's hand. "I know. Your dad and mom came to see me this morning. I'm sorry about your leg, but soon you'll have a new one and you'll be able to run and everything just like you always have."
"How do you know?"
Ian pointed to the flat pajama leg. "I don't have any leg at all, so I can't get a new one. I'll have to use crutches."
"Oh. Don't it make you feel bad?"
Ian smiled broadly. "Not at all. I like the way I look with one leg. Using crutches is fun. You'll have to use them for a little while until you get a new leg and I bet all your friends are going to want to try them. They'll be glad to see you."
"Sure." He started to move his chair, but Tommy said, "Don't go. I like you."
"I like you too, big guy. What you want to do?"
"Read to me. Daddy started to read me Treasure Island, but then he wouldn't read it any more."
"He got to the part about the one-legged man and started to cry."
"You sure you want to hear it?"
"Yeah. It's exciting. I bet you'll look just like Long John Silver when you get a crutch."
"Probably, but I plan to use two, not one like Long John."
He read until the nurse brought their lunch trays and told Tommy Ian could stay and eat with him, if he promised to take a nap after.
Once Ian had lowered the bed and smoothed the sheet over Tommy, he wheeled into his own room. The nurse set a small vase of flowers on the table soon after and handed him the card. "It was thoughtful of you to read to Tommy. I know he enjoyed it."
"His parents asked me to look in on him and I'm glad to. He's a beautiful kid."
"That's nice of you. He is a lovely child. It's a shame at least one of his parents can't be with him all the time, but they both work. That's why I'm glad to see he likes you."
"Then I expect you'll find me in his room more than this one. I think I can come up with enough things to keep him amused."
To his surprise, the flowers were from Tommy's parents, the card thanking him again for giving them hope. Nice people, he thought. I know how they must feel about Tommy's leg.
The therapist held out a shiny pair of forearm crutches to Ian. "Think you can stand up long enough for me to adjust the height?"
"Damn right." He grabbed them and pulled himself up. The therapist made the adjustment, then said, "Okay, wise guy, try " but Ian was already half the room's length away, swinging easily between the crutches. When he returned, the therapist snapped, "Why didn't you tell me you had used them before?"
"When did you give me a chance? These aren't gonna stop me from doing anything I want."
The therapist's sour face cracked into a smile. "Like your attitude, guy, no whining. Just be damn careful how you sit down until you heal. Lower yourself slowly to your good hip first. There's not a lot I can teach you about crutches, so you can use 'em from now on, far as I'm concerned. I'll give you a few exercises every day to build up your arms and leg for endurance."
"Great. The exercise feels good." Ian said after a few minutes of work out.
"With the build you've got, you should be ready to go soon as you heal. Go ahead and use your crutches, I'll see you tomorrow."
"No! That hurts!" He heard Tommy cry as he passed his room. He saw the boy pull his stump away from the doctor's hands.
"But I have to change the bandage and see how you're healing, son. We want you to get well soon so you can go home."
Ian swung into the room. "Hey, big guy, what's the problem?"
"He hurt me."
Ian lowered himself into the chair by the bed and held Tommy's hand. "I know it hurts, big guy. It hurts when they change my bandage too, but big guys like us don't mind that. It won't be long before it doesn't hurt at all."
"That I am, buddy."
Though he winced once or twice as the doctor worked, Tommy did not make another sound.
"Thank you, Ian," the doctor said as he turned to leave.
"Can he be raised to a sitting position yet?"
"Of course. Why?"
"I'll have my lap-top sometime this afternoon. I thought I'd teach him to play some games on it. If he can sit in a chair he can balance it on his legs."
"Good thinking. He said you've been reading to him. That's kind of you. Children this age have a difficult time when they can't move about freely."
"When does he get started on crutches?"
"Tomorrow, I should think. I just wish our other therapist was back from vacation. She's far more patient with children than John. It may be a problem."
"What about if we go at the same time? Maybe I can help."
"Perhaps. From what your father's told me, I'm not surprised you use them so well. I schedule you with Tommy."
He read until Tommy was asleep then went to his own room. "Hi, Mack, you get it?" He asked the clerk from his father's firm who was standing in the doorway.
"Sure did, Ian. What the hell are you doing playing a kid's game?"
"It's not for me. It's for the little boy in the next room. I've been reading the book to him, and I thought I remembered seeing the game in a catalogue."
"That's damn nice of you, Ian. When you getting' out of here?"
"Probably be another couple of weeks. Hey, it's nice to be lazy after school."
"Wouldn't mind a little time off myself, but I sure don't want to give up a leg to get it. Ooops! Sorry about that."
"No sweat, man. Thanks for bringing this stuff."
"Good to get out for something besides business. That computer store sure has some weird games and stuff. I'm going back and take a look for myself. Gotta run, Ian. See you."
Tommy's parents walked faster when they heard his cries of delight. He was staring at the computer screen watching the figures move as their voices came from the tiny speaker.
"Look, mommy, Ian's got Treasure Island on his computer and he showed me how to play the game. It's great." He pointed to the screen. "Look at Long John Silver hopping along on his crutch. If Ian had a beard he'd look a lot like him cause he don't have no leg either. I got some leg, so Ian said he'd make me a peg-leg so's I can dress up like a pirate on Halloween, and nobody will know it's me."
"That's very nice of Ian, Tommy, but after he goes home you won't see him again."
"I will, too. Ian said he would come see me, and maybe we can do things together if you'll let me."
"We'll have to talk about that later, son."
"See you later, big guy. I need to do some work on my computer now and you want to visit with your parents. I'll read some more when it's time for you to go to sleep, and we'll play some more of the game tomorrow."
A short time later, Tommy's father stepped into Ian's room. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but I wanted to tell you how much we appreciate your kindness to Tommy. It makes our not being able to stay with him easier to take, especially as he likes you so much. But I wish you wouldn't lead him to believe you'll be seeing him after he comes home."
"Unless you have some objection, I would enjoy being with him. He's a fine boy and you're fortunate to have him. I won't be going back to school until the summer session starts, and I have nothing to do until then. I'm told you both work, so what does he do when you're not home?"
"He'll be going back to school as soon as he's able, but they won't take him at the child care center he's been going to because of his leg. I hope we can find a reliable sitter we can afford. We're trying to start our own business and money's tight."
"I can help, at least until I go back to school. When I get out of here, I'll be at home, so I'll be glad to pick Tommy up at school each day and let him stay with me until you come by for him. You're welcome to come by and see the place for yourself, if you want." Ian smiled. "I expect Tommy and I can get into enough mischief together to keep him happy."
"You've been good to Tommy and he likes you so much I'd love to say yes, but I'll have to think about this a lot and so will my wife. I mean no reflection on you, Ian, but we know nothing about you or your family. Would you turn a child of yours over to a stranger?"
"Oh, god, I hadn't even thought of it like that, I mean seeing Tommy every day, I feel like we're friends. I can give you names of people who have known me all my life. And I'd sure appreciate it if you'd let me come see him at home while you check me out. I'm going to miss him."
"Thank you, Ian. I can tell you that Julie and I will think seriously about your offer." He started to leave, but turned back. "Ian is an unusual name. Is it Scots?"
"Sure is. In English it's John, but my dad wanted me named after his grandfather, so I'm Ian the fourth, instead of John."
"Ian?" He heard Tommy call a little later.
"Coming, big guy."
"You promised to read some more," Tommy said when Ian had eased down on the bed.
"Okay. Let's see what's happening." He read until the boy fell asleep.
"I can't believe how wonderful that young man is to that child." One of the nurses said to another as she watched Ian leave Tommy's room. "If he doesn't change, he'll be a wonderful father someday. I've never seen anybody accept the loss of a leg as cheerfully as he has."
"I hope that child's parents realize how good he's been to Tommy. When he's around, Tommy never complains about pain, and I know he must have some, especially when the doctor changes the dressing on his stump. I see they both have the same hour in therapy. I know that's going to make it easier for John to help the boy. I just wish Karen was back, she's wonderful with children."
"I'll bet that young man will let John have it if he's not patient with Tommy. I'd like to be there when it happens. I don't care for John myself."
"No!" Tommy yelled at the therapist. "I want crutches like Ian's."
"They don't make 'em for kids your age. Now take 'em."
"Stop pushing him so hard," Ian snapped. "He's a little kid. Let me talk to him for a minute."
"Go ahead, wise guy. Maybe you can get through to him, I sure can't."
"Pick him up a second."
When John lifted Tommy from the wheelchair, Ian sat down in it and sat Tommy in the space where his leg would have been, then put his arms around him. "Hey, big guy, I thought you wanted to learn to walk on crutches like me and Long John Silver."
"I do, but I want crutches like yours."
"They don't make 'em for guys young as you because you haven't got arm muscles like mine yet. And you won't be using them that long because you'll have a new leg soon. You know what? I bet you'll look better on that kind than I look on mine."
"Would I kid you, big guy? Give 'em a try. When you learn how to walk on them real good, we can take walks together."
Appeased, John worked carefully with Tommy until the end of the hour, when he took a few faltering steps on his own. The session over, Tommy collapsed on the seat of the wheelchair, and watched Ian go through his work-out.
"Thanks for your help with the kid," John said grudgingly when Ian completed the last of his exercises.
'He's a good boy. He'll learn fast if you let him watch me walking and don't push him."
"Okay, I guess. Don't like working with kids, but Karen's out. Least this one don't complain when you're around. You going back up?"
"Wish you could handle his chair. We got an orderly out today and I don't know when we'll get one to take him back upstairs."
"No problem. He can sit with me like he did, and I'll wheel us both. Dump our crutches in the holder on back. Maybe I can get Tommy to practice a little this afternoon."
"Don't go trying that. No way you can catch him if he was to fall, and I'll catch hell if he gets hurt."
Tommy settled close to Ian. "Let's go."
"Can't start without the seatbelt on, big guy. Just like a car. Hold still." The chair Tommy had been given to use was equipped with a belt intended to secure those with very short stumps. Ian pulled the belt snugly across them. "Away we go, big guy."
"Faster," Tommy urged.
"Beep, beep!" Tommy yelled at a nurse about to step into their path, then laughed as she stepped aside. "Nobody gets in our way. Right?"
"Right, big guy. Wish we had somebody to race with."
When they were back in his room, Tommy turned enough to hug Ian. "That was fun. I like you lots, Ian."
"Will you do me a favor then?"
"After lunch and you've had a nap, will you try walking on your crutches again, just for me?"
"Yeah. You're not like that mean man."
When Tommy awoke from his nap, Ian sat on the side of his bed. "Okay, big guy. Swing your legs off the bed and I'll hand you your crutches and help you stand up." He put a slipper on Tommy's foot and helped him stand, then bent and rolled up the pajama leg past Tommy's knee.
"Why you doing that?" Tommy asked.
"Don't want you to fall over it." He pulled himself up on his crutches. "Remember how the therapist showed you how to walk? Try a step or two."
Tommy placed his crutches forward and dragged his foot between them.
"No, buddy. Look at me." Ian swung a few steps out and back. "Like I did, okay?"
Tommy's next steps were more sure.
"That's the way. Come over here, big guy."
Tommy swung over to where Ian stood by the bathroom door and stopped. "What?"
Ian stepped aside so Tommy could see. "See how good you look?"
Tommy looked at his reflection in the mirror. He held his stump out, seeing the bandage extending from his knee down six inches to the end of his stump. "When can I get my leg?"
Ian stood behind him, his arms around the boy. "When they take the bandage off your stump, you'll be almost ready for it. I bet you're going to like the way your stump looks when you can see it. Don't you think you look good on crutches?"
"I guess, but I want a leg so I don't have to stay in bed all the time." He lifted his stump again. "Why'd you call my leg a stump?"
"Come back to bed and I'll tell you." When Tommy was seated on his bed, Ian lifted Tommy's left leg with his hand. "This is a leg, buddy, because it has a foot on it." He lowered the boy's leg and carefully lifted his stump. "They cut part of this leg off, so what's left is called a stump. It's a way to say part of your leg is gone. Understand?"
"I guess, but you said you didn't have no stump."
"I don't, because I don't have any of my leg left like you do."
"You can't get a leg without no stump, can you?"
"No, buddy. I'm going to be using crutches from now on." He saw Tommy's eyes moisten. "What's wrong?"
The boy hugged him. "I want you to get a new leg like me."
Ian held Tommy, stroking his hair. "Thanks, big guy, but I like myself just like I am. Even if I could get a leg, I wouldn't use it. I like my crutches a lot. Don't you think I look good with one leg?"
"Good, I like you with one leg, too." He used a crutch to pull the wheelchair closer and shifted into it, then pulled Tommy down on the seat. "Let's take a ride, big guy."
"Where we going?"
"Oh, I don't know. Where you want to go?"
"Can we get some ice cream?"
"Good idea. I want some, too." He wheeled them down to the coffee shop near the main entrance to the hospital and lifted Tommy into a chair at one of tables, then bought ice cream sandwiches for them both.
"Tommy! What are you doing down here?"
"Mommy! Ian and me rode down and he got me ice cream."
"So I see from the mess." She wiped his hands and mouth clean with a paper napkin, then kissed him.
"You didn't have to do this, Ian. The nurse would have brought ice cream to him in his room."
"But this way we had a good ride."
"It's fun, mommy. Ian goes real fast."
"Is he a safe driver?"
"Yeah, he makes us wear a seat belt and everything." He lifted his stump. "Ian says my stump looks real neat."
Ian saw her cringe at the word and look away. "I'm sorry if that upsets you, but I was trying to reassure Tommy that he's still a good looking young man."
Her face cleared. "Of course. Tom and I have so much to learn about all of this. We don't want him to be self-conscious about it, but it's hard to accept."
"I know. But if you treat Tommy just as you've always done and talk about his stump openly, he will come to accept it as normal and never think of it any other way. I like the way I look with one leg, so I want others to admire Tommy, too. He's a beautiful kid."
Julie reached over and patted Ian's hand. "Thank you. I don't know how you can be so brave, but your attitude has helped Tom and me more than you can know. Tommy adores you."
"I'm glad. Come on big guy, let's ride back to your room so you can visit with your mom." When he started to wheel them out of the coffee shop, Tommy's mom offered to push the chair.
"No, mom. Ian can do it and he goes fast."
She watched in amazement as Ian propelled the chair along faster than she walked, Tommy laughing.
After another week, Tommy was secure on his crutches, wanting to race Ian down the hall. Ian always let him win by a good margin. One afternoon, he leaned against the wall and ruffled Tommy's hair. "You've gotten too good for me, big guy. I bet you'll be going home soon."
"Will you come see me?"
"If your mom and dad let me. I like you a lot good buddy."
Tommy hugged him. "You're my best friend in the whole world."
A few mornings later, Ian had just shaved and put on fresh pajamas when Tommy came in his room, followed by his parents. "I'm going home, Ian!"
"That's wonderful, big guy. I bet you're glad."
"Yeah. When are you going home?"
"In a few more days. I'm going to miss you, Tommy. We had some fun didn't we?"
"Uh hunh. You going to come see me when you get out?"
"You'll have to ask your mom and dad about that. It might be better if they bring you to see me first."
"Please, mommy, daddy."
"We'll see, son," Tom replied. He handed Ian a small business card. "Our numbers are here. We hope you'll call Tommy occasionally. Julie and I don't want him to think you've forgotten him after you've been so kind."
"I could never forget the big guy here. We're friends."
Tommy wrapped his arms around Ian's neck and kissed him. Ian hugged him back. "Go have some fun, big guy. I'll miss seeing you every day."
The next evening, his doctor came into Ian's room after late rounds and examined him. "You can go home tomorrow, Ian, but I want you to take it easy for a few days. Your incision is going to be tender for a while longer, so be careful and don't try to overdo as you always have."
"I won't. I'm just glad to get out of here. I'm bored."
"I'm not surprised, now that your little friend has been discharged. How are you going to get home?"
"I'll call the office and get dad to send Mack over with the car, if he's not busy."
"No need. Be ready at eight and I'll drop you off after my morning rounds."
As Ron drove out of the hospital lot with Ian beside him, he said, "I want to apologize to you, Ian."
"I'm not apologizing for what I said to you about your leg, I meant it. But I've always thought you a pretty self-centered person, yet you did wonders for that child. You helped his parents by talking straight to them, too. Yes, they told me what you said," he said in response to Ian's look of amazement. "You told them what I would have, but coming from you it made a lot more sense to them." He nodded. "I'm beginning to feel some respect for you, Ian; you're growing up at last. Your father will be pleased."
Ian was working on a paper for one of the classes he would repeat, when his phone rang. "Of course. I'll be glad to see him. About seven then," he said and hung up.
Tommy's dad turned his car into the drive then stopped, looking at the Georgian mansion just ahead. "This can't be it. I must have misunderstood Ian when he gave me the address."
Just then Tommy yelled out the window, "Ian!" And was out of the car swinging toward his friend who was walking across the lawn toward them.
Ian stopped and held out his arms. "Come here, big guy." He scooped Tommy up in a hug. "It's good to see you buddy. Now, let me put you down and speak to your parents."
"Yeah. Daddy didn't think you lived here. He was going back home."
"This is where I live, big guy." He lowered Tommy to the ground and handed him his crutches. They walked to the car together. "Hello, I'm glad you came. Drive on up to the house. Tommy and I will meet you there."
When Tommy's parents got out of the car, Ian said, "Come on in. It's good of you to bring Tommy to see me."
Julie smiled. "We didn't have much choice. He's asked at least a dozen times each day when we were coming."
"You're staying home with him?"
"Yes. There's no one else to take care of him, but it's hard for Tom trying to do my work as well as his. This is so lovely," she said looking around the spacious entry hall.
"You're in interior decorating, if I remember correctly."
"That's right. Tom helps me by preparing walls and woodwork for painting, but he's really a landscape architect. I studied interior design in school and what we hope to do is offer a combined package to homebuilders. It's hard to get established without a job to show them."
"I'm sure. Let me show you some more of the rooms." He gave them a brief tour which ended when Tommy asked, "Don't you have a room where you can play and your mommy don't tell you not to mess things up?"
"That's upstairs, big guy. Want to see it?"
"He can't go up steps very well, yet. I'm afraid he'll fall." Julie said quickly.
"I want to see."
Ian smiled. "No problem, buddy, we can ride up." He led the way back into the hall and opened the door of a small lift. "You and your mom ride up to the top floor. Your dad and I will be there by the time you are. The lift's slow."
"You ride with him, Ian. Tom and I don't mind the stairs."
Ian shook his head. "You'd never find the stairs to the third floor. Go ahead with Tommy. Push the top button."
Ian and Tom were waiting when the lift door opened into a large room. At one end a unit kitchen and comfortable chairs, but a larger space at the other end was filled with a train layout.
"Wow!" Tommy yelled. "Look at all the trains. Can I run 'em, Ian?"
"Sure thing. Come on." Once Tommy was happily engrossed in the trains, Ian and his parents walked back to the chairs and sat down. After asking, Ian fixed drinks for them and picked up the phone. A few minutes later the maid brought up a plate of hors d'oeuvres and passed them.
"We did check your references, Ian, and we were going to let you take care of Tommy for us while we're at work, but we see that's impossible now."
"Why? I really want to do it. What changed your minds?
"Look at the way you live. You're not in childcare, and it's far too much of an imposition on your family. They won't want Tommy here every day."
Ian smiled broadly. "I can't think of anything nicer than having Tommy here. Besides, Ella lives in. Believe me, she'll make sure anything Tommy gets to eat or drink will be good for him. She was hard enough on me."
"What about your mother?"
"She left dad when I was about Tommy's age. That's when dad hired Ella and she's been with us ever since. In most ways she's been a mother to me."
"What will your father say?"
"He'll be glad I'm doing something useful. I have some work to do before I go back to school, but I can do that in the mornings and have my afternoons free for Tommy." He pointed towards Tommy. "Look how he's enjoying himself. And if it's nice, there's a swimming pool out back. I swim well, even with one leg, and I have a lifesaving certificate. Every kid should learn to swim. I'll take him to the zoo, the childrens Museum, and if the weather's bad we can watch videos. I think I can make every day happy for him. He deserves it."
"We think so, too, especially now that he can't be playing with his little friends for a while. You have really put some thought into this, haven't you?" Tom said.
"I want to do it for Tommy. I always wanted to teach little kids, but dad wanted me to train for his business, so that's what I'm doing."
"And that is?"
"He's a building contractor, so I'm studying a little of everything, from architecture to geology." Ian grinned. "The dean at the college even had to come up with a title for the coursework I'm doing, so he calls it construction engineering. I'll have a degree in arts when I finish."
"You've been so good to Tommy and he likes you so much, I wish we could accept your offer, but "
Ian cut her off. "No buts. Please give it a try for a week or two, at least. If Tommy or you are unhappy with me, then that's it."
They looked at each other, then to Ian. "I don't suppose it would hurt to try it," Julie said. "Tom needs me so much right now. But it will be another week before Tommy goes back to school."
"Drop him off here on your way to work. A week's not that long, and when you talk to the school about my picking up Tommy each day, get his books and I'll work with him. If I'd thought of it, I could have worked with him while we were in the hospital. I think I know enough to pass the first grade."
Tom grinned. "I'm sure you do. It'll be about eight-thirty each morning, then, and we'll try to pick him up by six. We may be a little late sometimes."
"Don't worry about that. If you are, Ella will fix dinner for us. Dad's seldom home, so it'll be good to have somebody to eat with."
Ian shut down the trains over Tommy's complaint. "That's okay, big guy. You can come see me every day. Would you like that?"
Ian was careful to mix fun with schoolwork so that Tommy never complained when asked to study. Ian was amazed at how quickly he caught on to whatever he was taught.
When his mother stopped by for him Friday evening, she said, "I'm afraid we're going to have a problem with Tommy going back to school. He wants to stay with you instead. He likes the way you teach and it must be good, because in just one week you have him reading much better than he was before."
"I use a good computer program recommended by private schools. He enjoys it, because it's a word game. If he doesn't say the word on the screen properly and then type it in, nothing happens. Poor little guy gets so frustrated when he makes a mistake you wouldn't believe it. He learns fast."
"I hope we'll soon be able to afford a computer. It would be so useful to Tom and me for business. When we do, I'll ask you to recommend some programs for Tommy."
"I already have what he needs on mine. We can transfer them to yours. I think Ella's giving him some cookies and milk, so he's in the kitchen."
"Your mom's here, big guy. You ready?"
"Yeah. Hi, mommy. Thank you for the cookies, Ella, they were real good."
"You're welcome, honey. Let me wipe that milk off your face." She dampened a paper towel and wiped his upper lip. "I declare, Tommy, you're just like Ian when he was a little boy. I'll see you Monday."
"You and Ian can have some rest Monday morning, Tommy's going back to school."
"That's nice. You be smart in school, honey. Education is mighty important."
"I don't want to go to school! I want Ian to teach me."
Ian hugged him. "You have to go back to school, big guy. That's where all your friends are and I'll come for you every day when school's out. We can have some fun and do your school work, too. Okay?"
"No. I want you."
"Hey, I've been calling you big guy because I thought that's what you were. Big guys have to do things they'd rather not sometimes, but they do them anyway. That's what makes them big guys. You're my big guy, so you go back to school without any fuss. You know, I bet Ella'll have some cookies and milk for us every day when we get home. Would you like that?"
Tommy smiled. "Yeah, I like Ella's cookies."
"Okay, big guy. I'll see you at school Monday. Be sure you wait for me and don't go with anyone else."
Ian's sports car had given place to a Mercedes convertible with automatic transmission. He pulled smoothly to a stop in front of the elementary school just as the bell rang. The doors opened and children erupted outward. His eyes searched as the crowd thinned. "Ian!" He heard Tommy yell, but his teacher stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders holding him back. She beckoned to Ian.
He got out and crutched over to where she and Tommy stood. "What's wrong?"
"May I see some proof that you're Mr. McGregor. I was told he would be picking Tommy up each day."
"That's correct." He fumbled for his billfold.
"I told you he's Ian." Tommy said.
Ian ruffled his hair. "I'm sure you did, big guy, but your teacher is doing just what she should. You must never go off with a stranger." He handed her his driver's license.
She studied the picture, then handed it back to Ian. "Thank you. You may go now, Tommy." Ian picked him up and hugged him. "Tommy told me you have been teaching him while he was out."
"Only for a couple of weeks. If I'd thought, I'd have asked for his books and worked with him while we were in the hospital."
"You were there at the same time?"
"I had the room next to Tommy's. That's how we got to know each other."
"You've done well with him. I feared he would fall behind, but he's a little ahead of my other students, especially in reading. He says you used a computer."
"I did. When I offered to help him, I contacted one of the professors at school and asked what was suitable for a first grader who was unable to go to school. She faxed me a list and I made some choices. He really loves the new Treasure Island reading program." Ian smiled. "He thinks I would look like Long John Silver if I had a beard."
She blushed. "You're far too young for that, but I must say that with "
"One leg and a crutch? There's a certain resemblance, you have to admit. And don't worry. I'm not in the least bothered by my leg."
"I do envy you being able to use a computer to teach. I would love to have one in my classroom, but they haven't funds to supply us with one as yet."
He leaned down. "Let's go, big guy, I think Ella's got those cookies all ready for you."
The day had turned hot. Tommy begged Ian to let him get in the pool. "I'd like to, big guy, but you can't get the bandage on your stump wet."
Tommy held out his stump and pulled up the leg of his jeans. "It's gone, see?"
Ian smiled. "Sure is. They took mine off Saturday, so let's see if Ella can find a pair of my old swim trunks for you."
When he had helped Tommy into the swim trunks, he lifted the boy's stump and stroked it gently. "Looks, good, buddy. I like it."
"I can't see it good."
"Come over here." When Tommy stood in front of the full-length mirror, Ian lifted the stump for him to see.
"I know, so is mine. It will go away in a little while and then it will be nice to look at. But you'll have a leg on it by then."
"Can I see yours?"
"When I get my trunks on." Ian changed in the bathroom. When he came out, Tommy hesitantly touched the scar.
"It's just like you never had no leg there."
"I know. Let's go swim, buddy."
Ian was holding Tommy up in the shallow end of the pool trying to get the boy's arms and legs in coordinated movement when his father stepped up beside the pool.
"Who is that boy, Ian?"
"Tommy Peterson. He had the room next to mine in the hospital. I read to him a lot."
"I see. But what is he doing here?"
"I've been taking care of him during the day while his parents are at work. I'll tell you about it after they pick him up."
"You certainly will. At dinner." His father snapped.
Tommy wriggled free of Ian's grasp and stood, holding on to him for balance. "Who's that?" He pointed to Ian's father.
"My dad. I think it's time to get dressed, big guy. Your mom should be here soon."
After Ella had served their dinner and returned to the kitchen, Ian's father looked at him. "I'm waiting for an explanation of that child's presence."
He listened intently as Ian related the entire story. When Ian fell silent, he leaned slightly forward with a frown. "I have one question and I want an truthful answer."
"Have you touched that child in any way?"
"Sure. I helped him dress. He hasn't learned to do it while he's sitting yet."
"I didn't mean that, and you know it. I meant in a sexual way."
The mouth full of iced tea Ian had just taken sprayed across the tablecloth. He slammed the glass down and jumped to his foot, holding the edge of the table. "What the hell do you think I am!" He yelled.
"I know what you are. Sit down. Now!" He snapped as Ian started to pickup his crutches. "I haven't finished talking to you."
Ian dropped back into his chair, staring at his father.
"I know you're gay, and you have been most discreet about it. But I will not have you molesting a child. That is the most heinous thing I can imagine. I would like to believe that you would not stoop so low for gratification, though God knows you were determined to lose a leg. I never dreamed you would go so far, but you did. So what am I to believe after seeing you with that little boy?''
"I'm relieved you know I'm gay, father. I didn't know how to tell you. I've been with another man once or twice, that's all. But I give you my word of honour, if you can believe I have any, that I would never touch a child. Tommy is a sweet, brave little guy I came to love in the hospital. I would like to have a son like him someday, but that's not very likely. So while I can, I'll do anything I can to help him. And that's the truth."
His father stared at him without speaking for several minutes, then he relaxed. "I believe you are telling me the truth, Ian. I'm sorry I made such an erroneous observation, but I have read so much in the papers about child molestation recently, I assumed gay men were responsible."
"If you'd read the trial reports, you'd know most of them are parents or relatives of both sexes. I like kids, dad. They respond so freely to affection, and Tommy needed someone when they took his leg. It's terrible for a kid like him. I was there, and reading to him gave me something to occupy my time. I helped him learn to walk on his crutches, too. They ought to fire that son of a bitch they have in therapy. He hates children, and they know it."
His father finally gave him a chary smile. "Then your actions have a charitable motive. I find that commendable, son. How long is this childcare going to continue?"
"Until I go back to school next month. Tommy's parents have to work like I told you. I don't know what will happen after I've gone back. They can hardly afford someone to stay with him after school, and the childcare they were using won't take a child on crutches. I hope they can afford to buy him a leg, before I leave, then he can go back. They're good hard working people, but money's tight for them right now."
"What type of business are they in?"
"They're trying to get in with a builder to do the interior design and landscaping of new homes." He reached in his billfold and handed Tom's card to his father.
"I believe they contacted us a while ago. I didn't respond because they had no completed work to show us. As you know, I like to have evidence they can complete a job in an exemplary manner."
"I wish you'd give them a chance, dad. They both impressed me as being the type who would do anything to satisfy a client. They have college degrees, so they have to know what they're doing."
"You've got that spec house going over in the hills. Why don't you let them have a go at that? If their plans are good, let them do the job. You can raise the price enough to cover their work and get it."
"That's an idea, son. I can ask them for a consultation, at least, and see what they come up with."
"If you decide to do it, dad, I'm going to insist that you not let them know I'm your son, otherwise they'll think it's charity instead of their ability that got them a job."
His father stared at him. "You do like these people, don't you?"
"I really do, and this may be the break they need. I want to see them have it, especially for Tommy's sake."
"I never thought I would see you care that much for someone else. You've always been so determined to do what pleased only you."
"I guess so, dad, but that little guy has made me rethink a lot of things. I love him like he was mine."
Ian was shocked to see his father lift his handkerchief to his eyes, then blow his nose loudly. "Whatever your many faults, son, I'm more proud of you at this moment than I can say. I know you often think I'm unfeeling, but I'm proud of the reputation for honest dealing the company and I have. I drive hard bargain, son, but I always deliver quality in equal measure. I can see you understand that now, and it makes me proud. I want you to finish school and join me in the firm. I need a man who has shown the qualities you have just revealed."
"Thanks, dad. I mean it."
When Ian stopped at the school to pick up Tommy several days later, he was surprised to see Tommy start running to his car.
"Look, Ian, I got a real peg-leg. I can run and everything, like before."
"That's great, buddy, can I see it?" He asked when Tommy was in the seat.
"Sure. Look." He said proudly, pulling up his jeans leg to show Ian the molded plastic pylon on his stump.
"That's a fine peg-leg, but I thought you were going to get a leg with a foot on it."
Tommy shook his head. "It cost too much, and the man said I should use a peg-leg like this until I was really big, cause I'll have to get a new one every time I grow some. Daddy said he hoped he would have the money, because I'm growing fast."
"You are that, buddy. Does it hurt to run on it?"
"Not much. It's better than my crutches, and the other guys think it's neat."
"I think it's neat, too, big guy."
"I wish you could get a leg, too, Ian."
"Thanks, buddy. I know you do, but I like my crutches. Let's go get some ice cream to celebrate your new leg."
A few days later, Ian picked up Tommy at school, then drove off in another direction.
"Where we going, Ian?" Tommy asked.
"I'm taking you home. Your dad called last night and asked me to."
"But I want to go to your house."
Ian ruffled Tommy's hair. "You need to spend some time with your parents. You see me every day, and they don't get any time with you except on Sunday. Besides, I'll be going back to school soon."
"I don't want you to go 'way."
"Sorry, big guy. I'll miss you, but I have to go to school so I can get a job when I'm through. I'll come see you every time I'm home. You can read so good now, I'll write you a letter every week. Would you like that?"
"Yeah. I've never got a letter before. I can write you, too. Look, there's our house." Tommy pointed to a small tract house. "Come, Ian."
"Okay, Just for a minute."
"Thank you for picking Tommy up and bringing him home," Tom said with a smile. "We'll be working from here now. I had to close our office, because I used the money for Tommy's pylon, but we've got a chance to do a complete new home package like we hoped. If they accept our plans and drawings both Julie and I will have to be out a lot. I know we've asked too much of you already, but it would be wonderful if you would still take Tommy after school, until a place opens up in his daycare center again. Now that he has his pylon, they'll take him back."
"You know I will. I hope you get this job, too."
"I think we have a good chance. The builder gave us a lot of information to work with. We like the way he insists on quality."
A few weeks later, Ian packed for his return to school with mixed feelings. Bill would be working during the summer, but promised to room with him again in the fall. But it was Tommy he knew he would miss. God, I love that kid. It's going to kill me to leave him.
The Petersons had invited him to dinner that evening. He looked at the lavish meal, knowing they could hardly afford it, but he enjoyed every bite and praised Julie's excellent cooking. They let him put Tommy to bed, while they cleared the table.
He undressed the boy and slipped the pylon from his stump, then helped him put on his pajamas. He knelt beside the boy as he prayed, adding a few words of his own. He started to smooth the covers over Tommy, but pulled him up in a hug instead. "I love you, big guy, and I always will."
"I love you, too, Ian. I wish you weren't going 'way."
"I know. I'll miss you, but I've got your picture in my billfold and a bigger one I'm going to put up by my bed in my room at school. Then I can see you every night and tell you I love you." He paused to wipe his eyes. "Give me a kiss, big guy, then I've got to go."
"What on earth, Ian?" Julie asked when he came back into the living room.
"I'm going to miss Tommy so much. You thought you were asking a lot of me to keep Tommy for you, but I've got to tell you it was you who gave me the most wonderful thing I'll ever have. Getting to know Tommy was worth my leg. I'd give the other one if it would let me relive the past few weeks. No matter what comes, love that son of yours. He's your greatest treasure."
Julie threw her arms around him. "Oh, Ian, what a wonderful thing to say. We'll never forget how much you've done for all of us."
Tom's arm went around Ian's shoulder as well. "You always have a place in our home, Ian. I know we don't have much, but it's yours if you need it. I mean it, fellow. You love Tommy as much as we do, and you've done a lot for him, us too. Come see us whenever you're home, and write us once in a while. Have a safe trip, my friend."
"Go with God," Julie added as she kissed him on the cheek.
Ian sat in his car a few moments to compose himself before driving off. Accept what I can give Tommy, my friends, he thought as he started the engine and backed out of the drive. They would never know he had set up the trust fund to provide Tommy with the new legs he would need as he grew, and later to help pay for his education. Only the new computer that would be delivered to their door in a few days would identify the giver.